By Toni Stauffer
Established in 2016, Knowledge Works Learning Academy (KWLA), an educational nonprofit organization, has been serving the Phenix City community. Through partnerships with the Phenix City Housing Authority and the Russell County Extension. KWLA offers an after-school program and a summer program to low-income families for the cost of just $20 a month per child. The programs are open to any resident of PCHA public or Section 8 housing.
The program is based at L.P. Stough Community Center at 101 10th Ave. South and has two part-time workers: Eddream Lawrence, a retired Phenix City Schools counselor, and Charleane Jenkins, a retired para-pro, also from the Phenix City school system. Founder and Executive Director Kai Gary volunteers every day after work during the school year and full time in the summer.
Gary said her inspiration stemmed from her mother, Eddream Lawrence, who was always serving others in the community.
“I saw her teach adults in rural Russell County how to read, I saw her bathe wheelchair bound individuals and prepare meals for those who could not afford home health care,” Gary said. “I witnessed what true servant leadership was. We served our community as youth, whether through feeding the homeless, visiting and singing in the local jails, or singing to the elderly in nursing homes. While in home school and growing up in rural Russell County, serving others was a lifestyle for me and my siblings.”
Gary wanted to put her experience in education to good use. “I work in the Russell County School District and [some] kids were not turning in their homework. A lot of times, parents didn’t understand how to help their kids with their homework,” Gary said. “I also wanted to help at-risk students in Russell County, especially students with disabilities. There’s a learning gap with at-risk students. In single parent homes where parents are working two and three jobs, kids are falling through the cracks.”
Through her volunteer work with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and the Riverview Community Center, Gary was able to establish a relationship with the PCHA.
“I answered the call to volunteer and through an awesome relationship with Haley Ramey, of PCHA, KWLA started operating and serving the children of L.P. Stough,” said Gary.
Gary formed a viable Board of Directors for KWLA and, with the assistance of House of David Consulting, wrote a proposal for the flagship summer program. At that time, only the Riverview location served as an active program site for children. Parents living in L.P. Stough were fully on board and excited.
The Academy also collaborates with Columbus State University, student teachers, and other organizations, like Feeding the Valley, which provides the students with a hot meal each day after school. The children work on homework and enrichment activities in the first hour and then focus on math, handwriting, reading, and appropriate behavior. The staff teaches the children critical thinking skills, like how to do math without a calculator. Gary said they spend a lot of time teaching teamwork.
“A lot of the children need mentors, especially male mentors since many are single parent homes,” said Gary. “We are in need of volunteers—high school students, retired teachers—anyone who would like to come and make a different for these children.”
Gary understands the families she helps.
“I was a single parent, disabled, and a recipient of PCHA Section 8 housing. I’ve gone through school, and now I’m getting my doctorate at CSU in educational leadership. I have a 3.8 grade point average,” said Gary. “I’m giving back. You can use the government system to help you get where you want to go in life, but we don’t want the parents using the system as a crutch. I’m a living witness to the parents, because I was where they are now.”
KWLA is also serves as an acronym for Gary’s name—Kai Wadiya Learning Academy—and serves as a reminder of her personal struggles and victories—when you allow knowledge to work for the good in your life.
Gary said she has seen student behavior improve dramatically during their time in the program, and she has seen parents become motivated to go back to school.
“I tell them, if you can’t find a job, go back to school because that is a job,” said Gary. “We are a community now. We communicate with parents.”
During the school year, KWLA after school program is open Monday-Thursday from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. ET and is currently funded through private donations and out of the pockets of its board members. KWLA has applied for a grant from the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley and is waiting to see if it will obtain funds.
On Dec. 18, KWLA and the Housing Authority held a Christmas Party for their kids. Waddell Catering, Honey-baked Ham, Little Caesar’s (Hwy 80), and members of the community provided food for the event. Through a generous toy drive held by Crawford and Ladonia Dollar General stores, KWLA was able to gift the children with toys for Christmas.
For more information on KWLA, call 334-704-3150 or visit the website at kwlakids.org.